Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
Dancesport is another name for competitive ballroom dancing. To dancers from other genres, like me, it seems like a strange concept—after all, dance is a performing art, a form of self-expression and a means to entertain an audience. That doesn't seem to gel with the word "sport". However, ballroom dance has always had a different raison d'etre.
Ballet, jazz, and contemporary dance were invented to be performed on a stage. Even though flamenco evolved by the campfire, and hip hop on the street, they're also made to be performed: get a bunch of flamenco or hip hop dancers together, and they won't all dance at once—they'll take turns, individually or in small groups, to take centre stage and be admired by the other dancers. The same is true of belly dance.
By contrast, ballroom dancing, like all the partner dances, was invented to dance socially.
Get a group of ballroom dancers together, and they'll all take to the floor at the same time. There's an element of showing off, but essentially each couple is dancing together for their own satisfaction.
Early Ballroom Dance Was Different From Today's Standards
It's true that in the heyday of ballroom dance, people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed ballroom dances to an audience—but their style was closer to today's American Smooth, and the highlights are usually tap, not ballroom—as you can see in this clip.
While you're watching, also note Ginger's upright stance and remember it for later!
In recent years, Jason Gilkinson has had great success with his "ballroom" show Burn the Floor—but again, watch the whole show and you'll see that most of the choreography is a long way from standard ballroom or Latin dancing! Like the ballroom and Latin numbers on So You Think You Can Dance, many of the routines are heavily embroidered with high lifts, arabesques and other non-ballroom moves.
Ballroom Dancers Must Compete If They Are to Make It a Career
If ballet dancers, flamenco dancers and belly dancers want to make a living from dancing, they seek careers performing in dance companies, musicals, on TV or in cabaret. Unfortunately, as we've seen, ballroom dancers don't have as many options. Perhaps that's why adult competition, rare in other genres, developed as the main way of earning a living for ballroom dancers. And from making it a competition, it's only a small step to making it a sport.
I'm sure some would argue that a dance competition is a form of performance, but it's not quite the same. In other dance styles, professional dancers achieve success by entertaining the audience—whereas a professional ballroom dancer achieves success by pleasing the judges. In that regard, ballroom dancing is closer to ice skating than to other genres of dance—it even uses a similar scoring system.
Different Aims, Different Outcomes
Given the difference in objectives, it doesn't surprise me that ballroom dance seems to be evolving very differently from other dance genres.
One of the big problems about judging an art form is that artistic merit is subjective. If you have a judging system that relies on the opinion of a judge, it will always be open to accusations of favoritism, no matter how respected the judge. So, like skating, ballroom dance judging systems have developed which have a heavy bias towards technical skills.
Here's a quote from The A-Z of Scrutineering for Ballroom dancing by Estelle Grasby:
"Queries are ... made about the subjectivity of Dancesport. An element of subjectivity does exist, but this could also be said of a lot of other sports and any concentration on aesthetics is just another portrayal of the competitor's commitment. Competitors are judged on their skill, performance and technique and ranked against each other, rather than being awarded a mark based on artistic impression."
As a dancer used to the way other dance genres are critiqued, this method of assessment seems completely upside down, especially once dancers are past the student phase. I saw Margot Fonteyn dance in her fifties, when her technique was becoming questionable, and I was completely spellbound. That performance will always rate far higher in my eyes than one by a technically perfect but soulless ballerina.
I do understand why non-subjective judging criteria is necessary. Unfortunately dancing becomes all about what's perceived to please the judges - for instance, all ballroom dancers wear fake tan, blonds dye their hair and eyebrows brunette, and everyone pastes on fake expressions, especially a cheesy smile. You'll often hear the judges at So You Think You Can Dance auditions tell a ballroom dancer to "lose the ballroom face" because the expression on a dancer's face should come from the heart. If they can't do it, it can be enough to lose them a place in the show.
Can Technique Go Too Far?
An emphasis on technique can also lead to exaggeration, as dancers try to do more of what the judges want. For instance, good hip action score points in Latin, so dancers try to move their hips more and more—until you get the absurd situation I saw at a Burn The Floor-type show recently, where the male dancers were violently gyrating and thrusting until I thought they'd put their backs out. It was painful to watch, and not in the slightest bit sexy!
In ballroom, the exaggeration is in the ladies' stance. Remember Ginger's relaxed, upright posture? Now look at the two videos below—one from the 1960s and the other from a 2009 event.
The 2009 dancers are certainly better athletes than the 1960's pair—we have the knowledge to approach fitness more scientifically today. But why, oh why, do the women have to dance leaning so far back, as if their partner has horrible bad breath?
To be fair, in all dance styles there's a risk of becoming too insular and not seeing the dance as others see it. For instance, flamenco dancers can get so focussed on brilliant footwork, they'll choreograph dance after dance full of nothing else—and they don't realize that ordinary audiences, after the first few "wow" minutes, are yawning with boredom. Mature belly dancers get so used to letting it all hang out in class, they forget how normal people might react when they perform in public. And I watched a contemporary routine last week where the dancers did nothing but throw themselves on the floor repeatedly, in different combinations of twos and threes, and stood up again. I'm sure other contemporary dancers would have admired their skill, but I kept waiting for them to start dancing.
I'm sorry if some ballroom dancers are offended by this article, but all I can say is—one, remember it's my personal opinion and two, see if you can find some non-ballroom friends to read it and give you their honest opinion. You may be surprised!
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 09, 2015:
Great hub, Marissa. Don't think about Dancing with the Stars that uses ballroom dancing as well. This was a well detailed hub about ballroom dance. It's more dance than a sport in itself, though it can be competitive. Voted up for interesting!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on March 14, 2015:
during my days, break dance was the most popular dance that boys broke their necks
Lauren on October 02, 2012:
You guys all gave me so much info! I just wanted to say thanks because I went into my first lessons (I live in Mesa AZ if you're wondering about the studio I'll post a link) and I think its both:) But that's just my opinions!
Michelle Monika on November 07, 2011:
To be fair, everything we do in competitive ballroom dance is not dangerous, it doesn't require double jointed hips, Just like ballet, you just need practice and instruction. The difference is that you can begin at any age. However, you are wrong about the posture for Standard dances. We do not "Lady lean back" We twist forward. It doesn't hurt my back and I don't get back or neck pains. After a few hours of holding frame, my arms and back muscles will be sore, but if I was working out for that long, then my arms and back would be just as sore. No aches however. We are judged artistically too. Some judges only look at two things--timing and artistic composition. Competitive ballroom teaches people something too. You become very aware of your body. Meaning you can sense how it moves, how you stand, the way your energy is projected not only on the floor, but always. Ballroom has many venues. Social, like s nightclub, or a couple doing things together; performance, like Broadway, or a showdance, or a wedding show; competitive, like going to competitions; and others too.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 28, 2010:
@Paula, thanks! @blue parrot, you're right, ice dancing (and pair skating) do have some elements of artistic expression. But if you look at the scoring, artistic expression is only one element and accounts for less than a quarter of the score.
If you were going to try to score any other kind of dance, artistic expression/performance would account for far more than 25%, IMO.
blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on April 28, 2010:
What about dance on ice? It is also considered a sport, and, for the Olympic games, didn't they even establish differences between freer and more programmed dancing? And I saw a dancer, Plushenko, criticised for his "flailing hands".
I also wondered how much depended on the music they selected.
But once it does get classified as a sport, it gets a larger audience. --
Pauladance.co.uk from Bournemouth Dorset U.K. on April 27, 2010:
So nice to hear a concisely stated opinion - and I loved seeing Richard and Janet Gleave, never having seen them dance. They were teachers of Erin Boag from New Zealand, now a 'Strictly Star' and very celebrated in the UK along with her Partner Anton du Beke. Re Warren and Kristi, it would appear from the clip that the current style in the Waltz is definitely 'Lady lean back' - I wonder if Victoria and Albert danced it like that! Absolutely grand to hear an opinion from the other side of the World!!